Surprise! Good Vision and Learning are Linked

Marley Beauchamp slips on a pair of 3-D glasses, but it’s not because she plans to munch popcorn while watching a popular animated film.

Instead, Kent County Health Department vision and hearing technician Denise Knight holds in front of the Murray Lake Elementary kindergartener a book that shows a page with a seemingly random array of dots printed on it. Knight asks Marley what she sees, but she is hesitant to answer. Knight then asks if she sees a butterfly. Can she touch the wings on the page? Marley shakes her head “no.”

Signs a Child May Need Glasses

 
  • Headaches or eye strain
     
  • Blurred or double vision
     
  • Crossed eyes or eyes that
    appear to move independently of each other
     
  • Dislike or avoidance of reading and close work
     
  • Short attention span during visual tasks
     
  • Turning or tilting the head to use one eye only, or closing or covering one eye
     
  • Placing the head very close to a book or desk when reading or writing
     
  • Excessive blinking or rubbing the eyes
     
  • Losing place while reading, or using a finger as a guide
     
  • Slow reading speed or poor reading comprehension
     
  • Poor eye-hand coordination
     
  • Persistent reversal of words or letters (after second grade)
     

Source: allaboutvision.com

Known as the Butterfly Stereo Activity Test, this is one of a battery of eyesight evaluations the health department conducts. The screening does not diagnose a potential vision problem, but may refer a student to an eye-care professional for further examination.

“For her to pass the test, she has to see a butterfly,” Knight said. “It pops out as a 3-D image.”

Michigan law requires hearing and vision screening prior to admission to kindergarten. Once a child is in school, free screenings continue on a regular basis, specifically between ages 3 and 5, and then first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth grades. Screenings are provided at no cost to families, and are conducted by a local health department, usually in school.

Seeing is Learning

Whether it’s learning how to read or do fractions, good vision and learning are connected. Experts say around 80 percent of what a student learns in school is from information presented visually.

Students who can’t see properly don’t have a learning disability, but it can be a sign of possible eye health and refractive problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness or color blindness, among others. And that can make it tough to understand and remember what was taught.

Those are key reasons why the Kent County Health Department’s vision program, which provides screenings in all schools in Kent County, checks for several things: visual acuity, eye muscle function, nearsightedness, farsightedness and symptoms of other possible eye problems.

In Kent County, of the 52,427 children screened during the 2014-15 school year, 4,620 were referred to an eye-care provider.

Of those, 2,202 students did go to an eye-care provider for an evaluation and treatment, if needed, said Chris Buczek, public health supervisor for KCHD’s hearing and vision screening programs.

Parents may also schedule to have their children screened by appointment at the KCHD, 700 Fuller Ave. NE. They usually choose this option if:

  • They or school staff have a concern and the student was absent when the KCHD was at the school
     
  • The family is new to the area
     
  • The child will be entering kindergarten and was not in a preschool or Head Start, where they would have been screened
     
  • The student was unable to follow the directions for a successful eye screen when a KCHD technician was at the school
     

“Often, parents may not even be aware we have been there at the school unless the child does not pass,” Buczek said. “We are required to send letters to parents of all students who do not pass. Some schools will publish in their newsletter that we are coming.”

Vision screenings are essential because students may not be aware they can’t correctly see, which can snowball into other problems.

“It is not uncommon for students to have some behavior issues, such as lack of concentration or listening, if they cannot see,” Buczek said. “And students may be able to see better with one eye than the other. This could be amblyopia, where one eye does the work of both, and the ‘not-as-good eye’ is in danger of shutting off. This is the main concern for preschool-aged children, since if it is caught early, treatment can be done to diminish the issue.”

Steve Jepson, president and chief operating officer of Michigan-based Rx Optical, says increased screen time is also being researched for long-term effects onthe eyes.

“Many believe that this damage is similar to an accelerated aging of the retina, which is irreversible and has the potential to significantly compromise vision at much younger ages,” he said.

Districts, Professionals Lend a Hand

Sometimes it’s a financial struggle for parents to have their children checked out by an eye-care professional or to pay for glasses. In those cases, school districts can often help bridge the gap.

Forest Hills Public Schools participates in a program called VSP Sight for Students, which covers the cost of an eye exam and glasses for those with no insurance who can’t afford the services and meet specific income guidelines.

If students at Byron Center Public Schools need glasses and parents can’t afford them, they’re referred to BC Ministries. The local group assists families with paying for a more thorough examination and, if needed, glasses through one of the local optometrists.

The Godfrey-Lee district has Cherry Health come to the schools for a period of time during the school year. The independent nonprofit only assesses students whose parents have completed a form for services through Cherry Health, regardless of whether they have had glasses in the past.

Cherry Health will test students for vision, refer to them to a specialist if needed and furnish glasses for those who need them or need their current prescription updated. They also test for glaucoma, while the district’s nurse, Rebecca Quigley, also inquires about other diseases.

Students age 10 and older can also be seen any time during the school year by appointment in any of the district’s school-based health centers, which are housed at Ottawa Hills High School, Union High School and City High School, as well as Burton Elementary/Middle School. Grand Rapids Public Schools nurses and health department staff work to help families receive follow-up care for students who fail their screenings. Some of GRPS’ schools take part in the See to Succeed Program, provided through Cherry Health, which provides dilated eye exams, vision screenings and glasses, if required.

“Parents are notified by their individual school buildings of upcoming screenings via school newsletters and other forms of communication,” said Laura Martzke, GRPS nursing supervisor.

Kelloggsville participates in Cents for Kids, which is funded entirely by the district’s employees through payroll deduction or one-time donation, said Tammy Savage, director of instruction.

Vision screenings are essential, experts say, because students may not be aware they can’t see correctly, which can snowball into other problems

Local Businesses Step Up

Dr. Troy LeBaron, owner of Professional Eyecare of West Michigan in Kentwood, has provided free eye exams, frames and lenses to students who are referred by Kent School Services Network, a Kent ISD effort that brings health and human services directly into schools.

Last year, LeBaron’s help amounted to at least $25,000 in exam costs and materials, including repairs or replacement of broken or damaged glasses, he said.

“Over the past few years we have roughly seen around 400 students, and that feels really good,” he said.

LeBaron sets aside time to serve students who can’t afford glasses, as identified by KSSN coordinators. He fits in emergency appointments as well. Students must be referred through school.

“My reward is helping these students become productive members of our community and the many thank-you cards that we have received,” LeBaron said.

He’s expanded his services, which started with low-income students in Kentwood two years ago, to other districts that notify him about a student. He said more people have learned the importance of annual vision and heath exams as a result.

“Teachers are becoming very good at detecting vision-related learning disorders,” he said.

Sparta Area Schools works in tandem with the health department, the Sparta Lions Club and a local optometrist. Vision screenings are done first by the KCHD, usually in the fall at the district’s school. If it’s determined a student needs glasses, they are referred to Sparta-based optometrist Dr. David Harkema.

If parents have financial challenges, registered nurse Amy Roelse coordinates with the Lions Club to pay for the cost of glasses.

“We don’t want finances to be an issue for students,” Roelse said. “If they do not have insurance to cover glasses and can’t afford glasses, I take care of that whole process. I work with Dr. Harkema and the Lion’s Club to get approval for the glasses. The Lions Club picks up the bill, and the organization has never told me ‘no’ in 15 years.”

CONNECT

To schedule a hearing or vision screening call the Kent County Health Department at (616) 632-7047, or click here

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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